You Did WHAT?! Using Decision Guard Rails to Align Decision-Making Expectations

Bill was a newly appointed project manager over a mission-critical systems development initiative. Ann, Bill’s boss, trusted Bill to lead the initiative and gave him the latitude he needed to execute without getting in his way. While the two worked well together, they did struggle in one area: decision-making. They had several instances where Ann was surprised by key decisions Bill made but didn’t inform Ann. Bill also didn’t benefit from Ann’s experience on several issues and made uninformed decisions that hurt the project. Ann asked Bill to include her more on decisions, but Bill took that as him needing to come to her on decisions he could have made on his own. Bill grew frustrated with his perception of Ann micromanaging him, whereas Ann just wanted to ensure she was in the loop on key decisions. The project ultimately got done, but not without a lot of friction between the two.

Friction that could have been avoided.

Key to a leader who empowers followers is the ability for the follower to make decisions without always having to ask the leader for permission. When done well, the follower is able to execute more nimbly and with greater ownership. When done not so well (as the case above), both the leader and follower are likely to be frustrated by missteps, poor communication, and potentially damaging decisions that were made without enough information. I’ve learned through doing this wrong so many times that there are four degrees of decision-making where the leader and follower agree as to the amount of guidance and input provided in decision-making. The degrees, or what I like to refer as guard rails, are as follows:

  • Get Approval – The follower presents the decision with supporting rationale to the leader. The follower asks the leader to decide. Leader is the decider; follower is the informer. Example: A follower must ask permission to hire an employee.
  • Seek Advice – The follower presents the decision with supporting rationale to the leader. The follower asks the leader for advice. Follower is the decider; leader is the advisor. Example: A follower must seek advice before promoting an employee.
  • Inform only – The follower presents only the resulting decision (minus supporting rationale) to the leader. The follower informs the leader. Follower is the decider; leader is the receiver. Example: A follower should inform the leader when taking a day off work.
  • Don’t inform – The follower makes and executes the decision without escalating to the leader. Follower is the decider; leader is not informed. Example: A follower acts without informing the leader when taking time off during a workday for a personal appointment.

By creating four distinct decision-making categories, it acknowledges not just the extremes (get approval and don’t inform), but also acknowledges there are some decisions where a leader should provide input into a follower’s decision (seek advice) as well as those decisions where the leader should be kept in loop on the decision (inform only). By slotting types of decisions into these four categories, both the leader and follower are better aligned on the decisions being made and the degree of involvement the leader should have in the decision.

In defining decisions under each guard rail, it’s important to keep a couple of things top of mind:

  • Don’t try to define every possible decision the follower can make. Focus on those decisions that are material in nature and help to set a theme for the types of decisions the follower addresses in his/her normal course of work
  • Great empowering leaders don’t apply a one-size-fits-all decision-making approach to followers. Factors such as follower experience level and degree of subject matter expertise influence the guard rail category for different types of decisions. As example, a follower newly promoted to a leadership role may have some decisions that fall into the seek advice category where a more experienced follower would have those same decisions in the inform only category.

To successfully implement guard rails, leaders need to do the following:

  • Categorize typical decisions into guard rails for his/her job – To set an example for followers, the leader should go through his/her decisions and slot them into the guard rail categories. By doing so it not only establishes an example that followers can use, but also highlights potential decision-making conflicts a leader might have with his/her boss.
  • Empower the follower to define the guard-rail decisions – A great step to establish trust with a follower is to ask the follower to define the types of decisions that fall in each of the four guard rail categories. The leader then works with the follower on adjustments until agreement is achieved.
  • Adjust guard rails with capability changes – Revisit the guard rail decisions in each category periodically to make adjustments as the follower’s experience level and subject matter expertise level changes.

Take the time up front to get clarity on decision-making expectations using guard rails. It will help reduce friction between the leader and follower and promote a more healthy empowering relationship.